Three men accused of supporting a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor were convicted of all charges Wednesday, a triumph for state prosecutors after months of mixed results in the main case in federal court.
Joe Morrison, his father-in-law Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar were found guilty of providing “material support” for a terrorist act as members of a paramilitary group, the Wolverine Watchmen.
They held gun drills in rural Jackson County with a leader of the scheme, Adam Fox, who was disgusted with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other officials in 2020 and said he wanted to kidnap her.
Jurors read and heard violent, anti-government screeds as well as support for the “boogaloo,” a civil war that might be triggered by a shocking abduction. Prosecutors said COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Whitmer turned out to be fruit to recruit more people to the Watchmen.
“The facts drip out slowly,” state Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin told jurors in Jackson, Michigan, “and you begin to see – wow – there were things that happened that people knew about. … When you see how close Adam Fox got to the governor, you can see how a very bad event was thwarted.”
Morrison, 28, Musico, 44, and Bellar, 24, were also convicted of a gun crime and membership in a gang. Prosecutors said the Wolverine Watchmen was a criminal enterprise.
In light of the convictions, Whitmer released a statement saying this proves there is no room for violence in our society.
“Today’s guilty verdicts are further proof that violence and threats have no place in our politics. Those who seek to sow discord by pursuing violent plots will be held accountable under the law.
“This trial is another stark reminder that we must take an honest look at the state of our politics. Politically motivated plots, threats, and violence are increasingly common against public officials as well as everyday citizens. They are the logical, disturbing extension of radicalization, hatred, and conspiratorial thinking that festers in America, threatening the foundation of our republic.
“I love Michigan. I always will. I will not let anyone get in the way of the work we do. No threat, no plot, no rhetoric will break my belief in the goodness and decency of our people.
“I want to thank Attorney General Nessel for bringing this case, as well as her outstanding prosecution team, led by Sunita Doddamani, for bringing it to a successful conclusion. I also want to thank all the law enforcement officers for their work and my family, friends, and staff for their support.
“I will stay focused on the work. Let’s keep getting things done for the people of Michigan.”
Defense attorneys argued that the three men had broken ties with Fox by late summer 2020 when the Whitmer plot came into focus. Unlike Fox and others, they didn’t travel to northern Michigan to scout the governor’s vacation home or participate in a key weekend training session inside a “shoot house.”
“In this country, you are allowed to talk the talk but you only get convicted if you walk the walk,” Musico’s attorney, Kareem Johnson, said in his closing remarks.
Defense lawyers couldn’t argue entrapment. But they attacked the tactics of Dan Chappel, an Army veteran and undercover informant. He took instructions from FBI agents, secretly recorded conversations and produced a deep cache of messages exchanged with the men.
Whitmer, a Democrat running for reelection on Nov. 8, was never physically harmed. Undercover agents and informants were inside Fox’s group for months. The scheme was broken up with 14 arrests in October 2020.
Fox and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of a kidnapping conspiracy in federal court in August. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were acquitted last spring. Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks pleaded guilty.
Attorney General Dana Nessel also released a statement on the convictions.
“The prosecution of these cases prevented horrific acts from taking the lives of innocent people. Terrorist attacks and mass shootings are not spontaneous events, they are the result of planning, plotting and amassing resources in a build-up to violent acts. If prosecutors had known about the events leading up to the tragedy in Oxford, they could have intervened and prevented the massacre of innocent students.
“Instead of only reacting to known threats, it is imperative that law enforcement be proactive in order to save lives. This office will not sit idly by and watch while armed terrorists plan acts of civil unrest with the intent of causing mayhem and murder. These are not merely acts of ‘harmless chatter’ and ‘wishful thinking.’ These are criminal conspiracies to conduct dangerous acts, and it is incumbent upon law enforcement to treat this activity as such.
“Make no mistake, the quick actions of law enforcement saved lives. We are pleased the jury clearly understood that,” said Nessel.